Want to publish? Wait a minute–this needs EDITING!

Can you publish your NaNo? As it will stand on December first–NO. Absolutely not. I can tell you that unequivocally. Sorry. But do not despair—if you think it’s a pretty decently written story with some lively characters and good ideas, you might just be able to make it good enough to pitch to an agent or publisher or to self-publish. But I’ll tell you a hard but factual truth—nobody but your mother wants to read anything you’ve written if it’s boring or written poorly. So if you want to consider publishing, you actually have to put all thoughts of publishing aside for the time being and edit that sucker to within an inch of its life. And then it may just become good enough to publish.

Blue notebook

Not publishable yet!

If you’ve been doing all the things I mentioned—pushing to get up to or beyond those fifty thousand words and cram the whole accomplishment into a month—it’s likely that the story as it exists right now is bloated and wordy and unwieldy. And in particular, if this is the first thing you’ve ever written, it’s unlikely to be even remotely publishable. Perhaps not ever. Trust me, though, we’ve all started at that point, and the more you practice, the better you will get at writing excellent stories. So don’t despair here either; just keep writing. But on the other hand, if you look at your novella and think, “There’s something really potentially good here,” you may have something to work with, and you can probably even make it quite good. How should you do it?

EDIT AND EDIT AND EDIT AGAIN

Ignore the book for a while

Before you even think about publishing, of course you have to edit. But even before that, it’s strongly advised that you put your book away and not even look at it or think about it for at least a few weeks, or even longer, if possible. This will give you some distance, so that when you come back to it, you won’t be swimming right in the middle of it. You’ll have had time to climb up the banks, dry off, travel down the road a while, do other things, forget what the book looked like, and get less attached. Then you can look at it more objectively—well, as objectively as you’ll ever be able to, given that it’s your baby.

Yellow decorated hope chest

Lock it away!

After living with your story for so long, you will have fallen in love with your own words and your own story, and for quite some time, you will be incapable of seeing its flaws. You are too close to it.

That’s why, among many post-NaNo editing groups, there is a site called NaNoEdMo (from “National Novel Editing Month”). This site, although it’s not affiliated directly with NaNoWriMo, builds upon and furthers the work of NaNo writers. It stages a fifty-hour editing spree in the month of March, during which you can edit the NaNo you wrote the previous November. But the people who founded NaNoEdMo wisely chose March as the month of editing, because it gives NaNo writers three full months to be away from their book. The writers can also get over the “I’m so colossally sick of this story” feeling that they probably have at the end of November, and they can view their NaNo with more objective eyes and fresh interest.

Put it away. Ignore it. Pretend it never existed. You may still be in the throes of first love, but cut the ties. Later, when the book is perfect, you will realize what a wise move this is.

It needs copyediting!

Pocket tool with scissors and pliers

Cut and adjust!

This is as true for the work of a skilled multi-book novelist as it is for a first-time writer. No story is ever going to be perfect when it is first finished. When you go back to read it again, you will probably cringe at the typos and the inadvertent repetitions and, more than occasionally, the bad grammar. And that’s just the words and writing mechanics; we’ll deal with the actual characters and plot later, because there will be plenty to work on there too.

At the copyediting stage, this is when you’ll be able to go through and find those typos and grammar mistakes and those sentences that contain eighteen words when they really only need seven. Here’s where you will grumble mightily at yourself for adding all those superfluous words so you could reach your fifty-thousand-word total. Sorry. (But you know you’ll do exactly the same thing again next year. Like I said, it just takes a little time away from a thing for it to feel fresh and exciting and worth doing again.) Now you must pare away every unnecessary word, every word that does not push the story forward in some way. Go over that manuscript sentence by sentence, word by word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark. Get that grammar, spelling, and punctuation as perfect as you can make it.

But remember that you’re not just editing so you can cut things for the sake of cutting things. You are editing to try to make the book better. So this is also where you can add. If you think of a much better way of saying something, delete the original sentence and put the better sentence in. If you skimmed something that really needed discussion, add that extra discussion too. And don’t worry that these are new words to edit—you’ll be making at least two more passes through your whole manuscript, editing it again. (Scared yet?)

If you want to publish some day, this is the work of a publishable writer. Do it.

RUTHLESS PLOT AND CHARACTER ANALYSIS

This work should make you even more scared; sorry again. The grammar and typo editing was just to give you a clean field to work on. This is the even deeper meat of editing. This is where it gets bloody.

Girl reading book

Now the story comes first

Before you go on to these next stages, you need to adopt a mantra: For the good of the story. If necessary, write this mantra backwards on your forehead in blood-red letters, like a tattoo, so you read it every time you look in a mirror. The good of the story itself comes first now, no matter what your feelings are in the matter.

Ditch characters if necessary

Have you heard of a “Mary Sue?” That’s a name people have coined to refer to characters who are usually thinly disguised versions of the author him/herself and who are inserted into the author’s own story because, say, the main character is just so dreamy that they yearn to interact with him or her personally and this is the only way they can do it. Or say that you insert a character who doesn’t really push the plot forward but who is just there, again, to experience the story personally or to gush over another character. This is a character who allows the author to personally intrude into the story in a direct, usually emotional way. If you’ve got a “Mary Sue” type of character in there, he or she has got to go.

At this stage, you have to be as emotionally uninvolved with your story and characters as you can possibly manage. This is because you will need to be capable of recognizing when a character simply doesn’t help the story in any way. And when you recognize that, you need to be able to say, “Right, then, that character is gone as of now.”

Red King and Queen from Alice in Wonderland

Unneeded character? Off with his head!

I wrote a gigantic fantasy novel {mumble mumble} years ago. There was a female character who I created out of thin air to be a love interest for one of the two main male characters. She entered the story before it was a third of the way through, and she was there to the very end. (So she was probably there for almost 600 pages.) But a few years later, when I went back to do a major edit of the story, I couldn’t justify why she was there. She contributed nothing to the plot; even the supposed love between her and the male character seemed completely contrived and fake. She was nice enough, but she did nothing in the story that couldn’t be more plausibly done by several other essential characters. (And the male character himself was too embroiled in the actual events in the story; he didn’t actually need a love interest.) So as I typed the story into digital form for the first time and edited as I went, I rewrote the story without her in it.

And guess what! The story was much better, and nobody missed her, the poor dear. There was no gap that she had filled, and she left no gap when she was gone.

For the good of the story, if you can see that a character is absolutely unnecessary to the story, you must get rid of that character. And—as we move into the last element of the editing—if you see that you actually have to sacrifice a character for the plot to be the best that it can possibly be—you must be ready to do that too.

Change the plot if necessary

This is probably the toughest change of all for any writer to make. You wrote all the events in your story because those were the events that really happened. In your mind, those events are as fixed and permanent as any event that took place in the history of the real world. Those events “really happened,” and if they hadn’t belonged in the story, you wouldn’t have put them there.

But this is the difference between the real world and a fictional world. You write fiction with a certain type of structure, to create a certain type of arc. That arc usually involves rising action (involving some kind of struggle either with a big problem or with an actual oppositional antagonist) that finally comes to a climax or crescendo, where the problem is solved, the villain is defeated, and the primary purpose of the story is fulfilled. Then the action falls swiftly as things get wound up and the story ends.

Graveyard

Put unwanted plot elements in this type of plot

If some event you’ve included doesn’t actually do anything to push the story upward toward that crescendo near the end, it’s possible (likely even probably) that that event doesn’t belong in the story. You may feel you need it, say, to build the camaraderie in your roving group of vagabonds, both so they get to know each other and the group gets some cohesion and so your reader can get to know them. But check whether this can be accomplished in other subtle ways in chapters that really do simultaneously push the story forward. Remember when I showed how you could give descriptions of characters in the middle of the action rather than pausing the action to write a block of text listing their physical characteristics and personality quirks? You can probably do the same thing here too.

Try to decide why you wanted this event or chapter in the book, if it wasn’t going to do anything to further the plot. If there’s really no valid reason the event should be there, aside from “I like it,” it might be a “Mary Sue” type of event, or it might be something you wrote well but which still didn’t help the plot. Neither reason is a good reason to keep it if it’s not pulling its own weight.

And remember that character from a few days ago who recognized that the only way to save the world was to sacrifice himself? What if you love that character too much to kill him off?

Kill him off anyway. If that is the best and only way to resolve the plot—do it. For the good of the story. Remember, remember, remember that it’s the success of the story as a good story that is the only important thing now. In fact, if the greatest and best way to make your story perfect (and perhaps to resolve some thorny plot issues later in the book that you just couldn’t think of any other plausible way to resolve) is to kill off your main character in chapter two—do it.

I’ll give you another example from my huge fantasy novel. One reason I sat on it for about six years—and in fact the reason that only two-thirds of it had ever been entered from the original typed paper manuscript onto disk in digital form—was that I finally realized that an important character who had died about four-fifths into the book really had to die several chapters earlier. If he died when I originally had the event happen, there were several problems that I would have to explain or think of ways of getting around (violations of magic laws inherent to that world, primarily), and any explanation I came up with was so clearly contrived and contradictory and convoluted that I just had to face it: if I went with the convoluted justifications of this big exception and kept this guy’s death in the later spot in the story, the story would work badly.

So this guy had to die sooner, which meant that there would have to be quite a bit of change to the plot and some of the timelines in the rest of the book. But there simply was no other way to get past all the problems. I’ve finally spent the last year doing the shifting of events and the rewriting of all the scenes that this character could no longer play a role in. It was a lot of work, and I can’t deny that. But the plot works, and it works so much better than before!

When you edit your NaNo or, frankly, any book you write, you will always have to edit, because nothing is ever perfect. You will start fairly simply, first taking a break from the story and then going over the words and expressions; then you will work up to the harder things, getting rid of or changing characters; and then you will get to the really heavy stuff, changing your actual plot and the events in the book, if it’s necessary to make the book better. You don’t have to do any of this if you’d just rather keep the story as a personal treat for yourself and maybe some friends. But if for a moment you think you might want to actually publish the story you’ve written—you must edit, and you must do it thoroughly. And you will not regret it when you see the final beautiful result.

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Writing help long after the NaNo

The fourth-last day of the NaNo is probably not the best time to point this out, but while many of the NaNo sponsors provide editing and self-publishing services, a particular few provide programs that can actually help you in the writing stage. And sure, they have deals that you might have been able to use during the NaNo, but what’s more important is that these are tools that you can use to help with your writing all year round. As you would expect, they start with word processing and text editing, but you can do that just with Word or Open Office if you want to. All of them go well beyond that, though; these particular tools actually help you plan and keep track of where your story is going. Some even help you create characters. And one is spectacular at helping keep track of timelines.

Person writing with a pen in a notebookIf you have visited or joined the official NaNo site, you have probably noticed that every time you log in and are taken to your front page, there’s a space down along the left margin that is labelled, “Visit Our Sponsors.” There are several main sponsors, although you only see one sponsor in that square each time you go to that main page. (If you want to see all of them, plus the names of all NaNoers who have donated to support the site, go way down to the bottom of the front page and click on the “Brought to You By” link. Then you’ll get to this page. Not only are these organizations kind enough to sponsor the NaNo site and help us all have as full an experience as possible, but sometimes they offer free trials while we’re doing the NaNoing and discounts on their programs afterward. It’s too late to take advantage of those this year, but you can watch for them next year, because they often repeat their offers. Let’s look at the programs that are most pertinent to the actual writing process, whether that includes NaNoWriMo or not.

MAC & iOS ONLY

Ulysses

booksUlysses is an app that Mac or iPad users can download, and it includes a text editor; a library where you can see the folders for all your ongoing projects at a glance and where you can store materials (for example, blog posts, photos, and other snippets) that relate to particular projects; and an export tool that turns your project into a PDF, a Word file, a web page, or an ebook. The text and materials are stored in the Cloud, so you can sync all your Apple devices that have this app and access your projects from any of them.

This app is really versatile, especially if you have several different devices you’d like to access your materials on. It’s not a bad deal at all, but as I say, it’s only available to Apple device users.

Storyist

Man at whiteboard, organizing notesThe description of Storyist is much the same as that of Ulysses, although it also shares some features that Scrivener has (see below). This is another program that runs only on Apple devices. It lets you use it as a word processor, but it also has the extra features of allowing you to track both your word count and your writing time. It gives you a choice of either storing your files in the Cloud or in Dropbox, the online storage site, and this means that you can access the files by either method. I don’t know if Ulysses also has a feature that lets you share your files with others through the Cloud, but you can certainly do that through Storyist, with Dropbox. So if you had finished a first draft of something and wanted someone’s opinion, you could send the person a link to that particular document, and they’d be able to read it.

Storyist also lets you make “index cards” for the individual parts of your story, and then you can show them on a “corkboard” and move them around as you need to. The program supplies templates and stylesheets if you need them, but you can also create your own. One thing Storyist has that I haven’t seen the other tools mention is plot, character, and setting sheets that you can fill in and customize as you want. And another thing I have only seen with Storyist is that it can export documents as Open Office documents as well as Word, HTML, and other standard formats. It will even export a file as a Scrivener file (the competition!). So this program sounds like a great all-around program for writers wanting help to keep track of everything. Too bad we PC and Windows users can’t use it, but it’s great for those who can.

BOTH MAC & WINDOWS

Scrivener

Several notebooks organizing a narrativeFull disclosure: I got the free trial of Scrivener for the 2014 NaNo (after two previous years of constant urging by friends who had used the free trial and then both bought the program afterwards). I did my anime encyclopedia project using Scrivener, to see how it would go. And I loved it! In fact, I liked it so much that as my friends had done in previous years, I bought a copy of my own afterwards, and I would have bought one even if there hadn’t been a discount for NaNo writers at the time. (I don’t think there is necessarily a discount every year, but Scrivener is certainly a regular NaNo sponsor.) The bonus with Scrivener is that there is a version of this program for both the PC and the Mac, and there’s a beta version being worked on for Linux too. So even we non-Apple users are not shut out in the cold.

(Since I have this program, I know more about its workings than I do about programs like Ulysses or Storyist. But if you’re interested in programs that help you collect all your documents and snippets of information for a project, you can go to their sites yourself and get more details beyond the summaries I’m providing here.)

One thing Scrivener is great for is letting you work on smaller, separate parts of your project as discrete chunks. You can make the smaller parts into their own files and just work on them individually, or you can temporarily put all the chunks together and have the chance to work on them as a complete document. You can open a “card” along the right margin to give a brief description of what’s going to be in that file, along with other meta-data about whether this is a draft or a later copy or the final copy, and whether this information will go into the larger document when you compile everything, and how it will go in. You can switch to a “corkboard” mode to see representations of these basic “cards” for each chunk or file of your project, and you can rearrange and reorder them if you need to. We saw this concept of “index cards” with Storyist too, but I couldn’t tell from their site whether those cards are linked to the actual files of text for each chunk of story or whether they are just used as an elaborate outlining device and you have to create the actual text files separately.

In Scrivener, there are also folders where you can keep photos you may use in your project, links you want to insert, videos you plan to put in, and other types of research material (e.g., scans of newspaper articles or other types of copies of materials). You can then export your finished project into the same types of files that Ulysses can create, including ePub and Kindle ebook formats. All of your material is saved on your own computer, and as far as I know, there is no saving to the Cloud and syncing with other devices—at least not with Windows. But I have discovered that Scrivener on the Mac can be synced with the product below, which ought to make you rejoice mightily if you have a Mac. Because the next program is wonderful!

Aeon Timeline

TimelineRemember some of the things I mentioned earlier this month when talking about making your plot too complicated, advising you to keep it simple? The reason for that was, in part, that it’s just too difficult to keep track of how your characters and storyline might relate to world events and histories. It is very easy to get a story wrong if you can’t keep track of all the political stirrings or other events or important real-world in the region where your story is placed. You can easily be surprised by having your characters run into an event or person unexpectedly, and that could blow your plot idea to bits.

Well. If you use Aeon Timeline, you may no longer need to worry about that, or at least, not as much. This is a tool that helps you create an actual timeline for your story over however many weeks, months, or years it might occur. You can use a real-world calendar, or you can create your own calendar for your own world. Then you enter major events at the right places in the timeline in the top half of the screen, and you enter your characters’ lives in the bottom half of the screen, and you can see where and when their life histories intersect with major events. You can also indicate whether your character participated in, observed, or just knew about the events, and you can intersect them with other characters as well.

You can zoom in on your timeline and keep track of events day by day, for example, to make sure that Character A doesn’t find the key to the locked door two days before Character B accepts Character C’s marriage proposal, but finds the key the day after the proposal, the way it was supposed to happen. Or you can zoom out from the timeline to see the bigger picture, so you’ll know, for example, how long a war lasted and whether Character D died too soon, since she was supposed to see the end of the war and be glad that it was over.

You must surely have written something where two people were doing things in different locations over a certain span of time, or two ongoing things were happening in different places, and you wanted to make sure that they didn’t end sooner than they were supposed to or that they didn’t intersect some other thing that was supposed to happen after they happened. In my own case, I have an 800-page novel I need to edit, and for the first time since I wrote it (many years ago), I need to figure out when the seasons are, and how long certain stages of an extended rebellion actually last, and which things are occurring in which countries and when, and how they overlap with each other. I am not trying to be a free promoter of this program, but Aeon Timeline is going to be the perfect tool for figuring out the timeline of that novel—a task I have put off for years, because this one task was so daunting! (Never mind the Excel spreadsheets I thought I was going to have to resort to!)

You can watch the first of their series of videos if you like, to see how it works, and you may end up just as sold as I was after I saw it. I know what I’m buying after the NaNo is over.

Pen lying on notebookThese are just some of the sponsors of the NaNo experience. Many of the others are primarily sites that offer to help you edit and format and publish your novel after it’s written, while others offer storage across devices or offer only editing services. (And SelfPub Book Covers offers the unique service of helping you to find a cover for your book.)

But if you want assistance in the actual planning, keeping track of, and writing of your NaNo project and other writing projects that you work on after this month, I think you’re unlikely to go wrong with any of the three main options (Ulysses, Storyist, and Scrivener) or with the help of Aeon Timeline to help keep the times coordinated. Isn’t it a wonderful time to be a writer? And isn’t it great that we’ve had the help of NaNoWriMo to discover these fantastic tools?

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Mid-fourth-week checkup

What? Another checkup? Didn’t we just do one a few days ago for the end of week three? Yes, that’s true, but look at the date. Dude, you’ve got four days left. If you haven’t met the general goals you needed to meet by the end of week four (Day 28), you’ve got a mere two days to fit it all in and only two extra days as a cushion. It’s crunch time, baby!

Doctor with stethoscope

Time for one last checkup!

However, I must immediately issue a proviso on this. Despite anything that follows below, if you manage to reach your fifty thousand words by November 30, it doesn’t matter whether your story or your dissertation or whatever has actually been completed. In the end, the goal of this exercise is to get yourself writing so you make fifty thousand words in the thirty available days. If you do that, you will be a NaNo Winner. You can compile and upload your book or nonfiction project—incomplete or not—and get it validated by the official NaNo site and recognize that you have done what the NaNo asked you to do. So yay either way!

FICTION: THE PINNACLE!

Whatever problem your character or characters have been working on all month, according to our pacing schedule, they should be solving it right about now, or else in a big flurry of activity over this coming weekend. The traitor is revealed! Was it a member of the group all along? Was it someone a group member was close to? Does this mean the group member has to make a final decision between turning her great friend over to the authorities or letting the group members suffer some loss or defeat because of her silence?

Mountain pinnacleOr maybe the central love interest in your romantic story of thwarted or star-crossed love suddenly realizes, for various reasons that have been gradually discovered through the course of the story, that the person he or she thought was The One really wasn’t—your main character is The One instead, and now there’s the last difficulty of getting the love interest extricated, once and for all, from the involvement with the other person. Will the other person try to thwart this happy ending? Will he or she threaten to reveal a secret, and the love interest must make a choice? Or will there perhaps be a kidnapping attempt? Can your hero get there in time to stop the bad guy (or girl!) at last and seal the romantic deal?

Or perhaps the main character realizes that there’s truly only one solution to this world-threatening issue—there’s only one way to save everybody, and he’s not telling anyone, so no one can try to talk him out of it. He’s simply going to step into the breach and make the required sacrifice, gladly, at complete peace with himself. You can deal with the aftermath (which will involve emotion aplenty for those left behind) over the next couple of days or so, but This is The Big Moment. Keep the heroism low-key, though, because there’s nothing more overdone than a string of melodramatic declarations; a quiet peace and a knowledge of the rightness of things can be infinitely more dramatic and moving than exaggerated grand gestures. If necessary, you can have the remaining characters hash things over for the next couple of days; that can be the wind-down of your story as they, too, attain a degree of peace, or at least pf understanding, realizing that their great-hearted friend did exactly the right thing, no matter how painful it might have been.

Firefighter's coat and helmet

Heroism

Whatever the resolution of your story, this is the moment you’ve been working up to for almost four weeks now. If you have managed to pace yourself properly, it’s all coming together. Your subplot may already have been resolved, or perhaps it will be resolved in the climax of the main plot, with the revelation of one last secret, maybe, or the tying together of two problems with one solution.

Whatever personal conflicts your characters have had must either be resolved now, or at least set aside so they can work together toward a common goal, or it should be clear that whatever breach there might be has now become permanent, and the characters move on into a new reality.

But what if you haven’t gotten anywhere close to resolving or finishing things? At the pace you’re going, perhaps the climax of the story won’t happen until, say, next Wednesday, December 2. Okay, then, that’s no big deal. Yes, after all this work, it will be somewhat disappointing not to have finished the story completely. But if you have reached fifty thousand words, what does it matter?

Will anyone be stopping you from continuing to write the story until it’s finished?

Many people have used the NaNo as the start of their work on a novel that they continue to write and edit and polish for months after the NaNo is over. Often, the push to write fifty thousand words in November is the one thing that pushed them over the edge and got them writing. They just needed to get into “enthusiasm mode” and “determination mode,” and the NaNo certainly accomplished that.

If your story is almost finished, push to try to finish it. If it’s not going to be finished, but you’re still going to reach fifty thousand words by next Monday—don’t sweat it. As I said above, you will still be a winner.

But keep going for these last four days! Now is not the time to slack off. There will be plenty of time for that starting on December 1.

NONFICTION: THE CONCLUSION

NotebooksIt doesn’t sound quite as dramatic to say that you’re “reaching your conclusion” as it does to say that “you’re reaching the climax.” (Even if you think of the latter phrase solely in terms of story structure and not in, ahem, other terms.) But anybody who tries to say that writing and finishing a nonfiction project is always less interesting or dramatic than writing and finishing a great story has probably never worked on a large nonfiction work themselves. (Or have had a bad experience, which is really unfortunate.) I’ve written a Master’s thesis, and the thrill of actually writing that conclusion and finishing the thing is not (usually) just about finally getting it off your back so you can graduate. It’s about the pride and happiness that you actually did all that research—you actually did all that writing—you actually said something interesting and important about your topic—and you finished. That’s a heady feeling, believe me. It’s a real feeling of accomplishment.

So what should you be doing, about now, with only four days left? If you divided your subject into three or four subtopics, you should be winding up your final subtopic today or tomorrow. Recount that final, crowning anecdote about some specific cat’s adventures outside or how a cat adorably adopted your baby as its kitten or how your small but rambunctious kitten brought your Christmas tree down six times over the holidays. (That one’s real. She was my little black kitten. I could write a book—or maybe I will! That could be a future NaNo project for me, who knows?)

Person looking up at the Milky WayOr finish describing the final fascinating fact about those irregular galaxies, the final type of galaxy you’ve been dealing with after writing first about elliptical galaxies and then writing about the beautiful spirals. Describe the difficulties of actually seeing individual stars in those irregular galaxies, because of all the dust clouds that go through them. (It’s not just their shape that’s irregular, but their composition and internal organization as well.) Or you might finish with a crescendo, describing what might occur over millions of years as two galaxies collide, intermingle, and gradually form a brand new galaxy made up of both previous galaxies, minus, perhaps, some solar systems or individual stars or planets that might have been flung off into empty space during the intermixing. If you need a little more to talk about for your last day before getting to your conclusion, you could even briefly branch off and go into more detail about the rogue stars and planets that might even now be speeding alone through space after such a cataclysm. (Did you see that I worked the word “cat” back in there? Never mind.)

And you should, of course, already be contemplating what you will write as your conclusion over the next three or four days or so. You’ve given people a lot of information, but so what? What is the significance, ultimately, of this information?

Were you writing to non-cat people to try to explain the nature and personalities of cats so that perhaps these people will be more sympathetic to those who love cats? (Or to the cats themselves, even?) Or was “I just love cats” the real purpose of your writing, with no goal much beyond that? That’s a valid conclusion too, you know. You can write your conclusion to slant it toward those who share that great love of our feline companions. This can be a book of sharing, of essentially saying, “Aren’t they just wonderful?” Your book could be a handbook for new cat staff or a little book of facts that even some seasoned cat-lovers might not have known before. But whatever your purpose, you need to be thinking about it now, because you will need to be starting to write about it by tomorrow or November 28 at the latest.

And what is the ultimate purpose in your writing about those algae or that weather phenomenon or that historical figure? Does the person from history have any bearing on what we see around us now? Remember that entertaining saying, “If you can’t be a shining example, then be a horrible warning”? You might use something along those lines as a jumping off point for writing your conclusion about a historical event or figure.

It might be hard to write a conclusion that shows some immediate purpose for knowing about various types of galaxies. And yet, the physics that created those galaxies is the same physics that affects our world and our surroundings. Can you relate your discoveries somehow to everyday life? You don’t have to, though, if that’s not your focus. As with cats, it may just be enough to say, “I love learning about galaxies because they’re so cool, and so immense, and so majestic and fascinating.” That would be my own reason.

Some people have actually, for real, used the NaNo project to get going on their thesis or dissertation or nonfiction book rather than just to do it as a fun writing exercise. Well, I mean, it was still fun, but they really made some great progress, finally getting that dissertation started, finally taking that subject they knew so much about but had never gotten down on paper and actually writing about it. (And family history and genealogy? There’s another type of nonfiction project—maybe next year?) If you’ve been involved in something like a thesis, you may have known from the start that you wouldn’t actually get your project finished. (And even a thesis started for NaNoWriMo would need a lot of editing later.) But the NaNo was the springboard for making progress on it.

So as I said above, it doesn’t really matter if you can’t quite finish your topic or your conclusion or your thesis or whatever. If you have reached that fifty thousand word plateau by the thirtieth—you have still won! You have accomplished your goal.

So buckle down for these last four days and do what you can. You are so close to the finish line, and if you don’t let yourself stumble during these last four days, you will soon burst across that line with your arms raised in victory.

Cat on blanket

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What if you have to quit the NaNo?

Quit the NaNo? What? Even at this late stage, you might want to say, “Bite your tongue! There’s still time, I tell you! I’ve got a long weekend now! I’m sure I’ll write thousands of words!” And even though you’re thirty thousand words behind, you just might. There’s nothing more energizing than a deadline and a bunch of good ideas. But I am sure that there are some who have already decided that it’s just a no-go and have already quit or are about to. To you I say, “Well done, and don’t be discouraged!”

Notebook, pen, and coffee

Just couldn’t get it done?

But why the heck not? You didn’t make it. That wasn’t “well done” at all. You failed in achieving the goal. You just couldn’t stick to it. You just didn’t have enough ideas. You just weren’t good enough at getting your ideas down in an interesting way/fast enough/with any skill. Etc. Etc. If you’ve dropped out, you’ve already said all that to yourself, I’m sure. But STOP. Okay? It’s not as bad as you think it is, and there are a lot of positive things that have already happened. You are a winner for just trying and planning! But before we explore why, let’s have a look at why some critics might think that you didn’t “fail” at all—but perhaps were, instead, a casualty of a setup that almost encourages “failure.”

SOME FORMAT CRITICISMS

Too much about word count?

Images of calculations

Too much counting?

Some people actually think that the NaNo does not really help people in their writing, because it’s just got too darn many rules and restrictions, and it sets up a completely artificial situation. Most writers don’t write for word count—they are writing their work in order to get something said. They want to tell a story or they want to provide interesting and valuable information on a nonfiction topic. Isn’t writing for word count putting too much emphasis on, well, on the words (in the sense of volume instead of meaning) rather than on the ideas?

Sometimes a profound and deeply communicative idea can be expressed in very few words. Take the famous “six-word story,” usually but alas, incorrectly attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Adding even a single word to that little story (let alone 49,994 of them) would ruin it completely. If you’ve got a really good story that only needs to be told in, perhaps, ten thousand words, why on earth would you want to go on to add fifty thousand words of mere filler?

Perhaps the critics are right, then, that concentrating simply on verbiage does not exactly encourage the writing of a good story. Indeed, it may encourage horrific “padding” and an inability to glean the real nuggets that express the story most simply and beautifully.

Too much about speed?

Blurred image of speed in a vehicle

Too much speed?

Then there is the issue of the thirty-day timeframe. Good grief, who can sit and plonk out a story of any value in just thirty days? A good story, say the critics, sometimes takes time to work out (** But see below, at the end of this section). Sometimes an author has to pause and seriously mull over the plot or further explore the minds of the characters. And sometimes, if you get stuck, you might need to put your story away for a few days, allowing your subconscious to go at it so you’ll have fresh ideas available when you return to it.

I’ve often done that with a story myself. Occasionally I was just taking a break to let my subconscious work on a problem I couldn’t think of a way to solve. And sure enough, once I came back to the story, my subconscious would usually have a better answer waiting for me than anything I had consciously been able to dream up before that. Sometimes the break was not even intended just to be a “break,” but I had actually given up on the story completely. I was done with it, and I had no plans to continue writing or to finish it. But six months later, when I casually picked up what I had previously written, I discovered to my surprise that while my conscious mind had washed its hands of the whole complicated mess, my subconscious had not. It had continued to gnaw away at the wretched thing for that entire time, and as I picked up the earlier chapters, the subconscious went, “Ta-da! I’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long? Here’s your solution.” And off I went again, amazed at the solution produced by my subconscious and freshly energized to get on with the story.

You just can’t do that sort of thing when you try to write a novel in a mere thirty days. Try leaving that puppy for even just a day, and your brain goes into panic mode, shrieking, “Now I’m 1,667 words behind! I’m doomed!”

So are the critics right? It’s a stupid exercise anyway, so nobody really comes out a “winner?” I think that for those for whom this format cannot work—for those, say, whose mind instantly goes blank as soon as they’re writing to a deadline—why, this is not a format for them. And they are no more “losers” for not doing the NaNo than I am for not being a ballet dancer (a profession for which I am eminently unsuited). But I also think that this format can still be very valuable for those who give it a try—including anybody who just can’t manage to make the fifty thousand words in thirty days. I still think they are winners, for various important reasons.

(** Although, regarding the issue of being able to write a novel in a mere thirty days, I have to point out that the people who participate in the 3-Day Novel Contest might have an opinion on that subject. Since they write their novels [which, on average, tend to be 100 pages double-spaced] in a mere long weekend, they might look at the NaNo writers and say, “That’s nothing, you slackers! We could write ten novels in that time period.” But they’re kind of an exception, and most of them are somewhat mad by the end of the weekend. [I can speak for myself on that topic, because I did a 3-Day Novel attempt myself—once. I didn’t complete a novel, but I got seven chapters done of what ended up being a 15-chapter novel. So really, I got half a novel done in three days! Who can complain about that?])

Circle of "Yes" cards

There ARE positives!

POSITIVES FROM TRYING

You wrote something!

Think about this. There are millions of people in the world who wistfully think they might want to try their hand at a novel—some day. And they just never get around to their “some day,” and the novel doesn’t even get started, let alone actually finished and written. But you started. If you had not had this impetus and this push to try writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month, would you have written anything at all during the month of November? A great many people would not have gotten a word down. They would not even have thought about it, and they would not have conceived any ideas.

Handwritten notes and papers

You wrote something!

But you really thought about it. You thought about what sort of plot might be interesting, you thought about what sort of characters you might need to tell that story, and you did some sort of planning, even if it was just rudimentary. If you wanted to write a nonfiction NaNo, you probably narrowed things down to one or two interesting topics, you planned what sorts of things you wanted to say (and what you would have to leave out), and you might have done some research. In that case, you already know more about the topic than you would have known if the NaNo had not spurred you on.

If you have written even the first chapter of a story during November—even if that’s the only thing you managed to get down—you have started a story! If you wrote the introduction to your study of galaxies or cats, you have started your exploration of the topic! Are these ideas you can continue with? If so, you already know that you can write about them, so perhaps you can sit down and make a more realistic plan for writing. Maybe you don’t need to reach fifty thousand words in thirty days, but can you pledge half an hour a day for at least five days out of seven in the week?

You know the parameters of your skills

I think this is almost the most important thing of all. Remember how I described quitting my first NaNo before the end of the first week? It’s true that I was discouraged at the time, but I learned something crucial. I learned that I myself could not write a story in thirty days that had multiple plot lines, involved a lot of historical and political knowledge about the Middle East in the 1800s, and required immense research to make the tale remotely plausible. Because of what I learned that first year, I came back the second year and wrote the story where now and then, I threw in the occasional ancestor from my own family tree into the modern story, to see how the plot might develop. AND I kept the plot line quite simple. And the story sailed off with gusto, and I finished the story itself and I “won” the NaNo for my very first time.

You might have realized that you have to change how you structure your plot or characters next year. You might have discovered that you just can’t juggle twelve main characters at once, so perhaps next year’s story would work better with three instead. You might have realized that you still want to write a historical novel next year, but you’ll need to start researching the history in July, so you’ll know it cold by November and can handle any event your characters happen to fall into.

You may have discovered all sorts of things about yourself—what sorts of preparations you need to make, what sorts of characters you write better than others, what sorts of plots you really don’t enjoy, whether your grammar or grasp of word meanings is as good as it really should be, and even perhaps how bad you really are at time management.

The word "learning" carried by balloons

You’ve got new skills now

Believe me, these are all things that every writer of any kind needs to have a handle on. And you have gained a pile of wisdom the hard way, learning these things in less than thirty days. That puts you well ahead of most aspiring writers already!

I “failed” the NaNo my very first time, and I have “failed” it a total of four times in fourteen tries (that is, unless something dire happens in the next five days and I don’t manage to finish this one either, but believe me, I’m not planning on that). Every time I didn’t get the NaNo finished—but most especially that first time when I didn’t even make it a week—I learned crucial things that helped me succeed the next year. (And because of the things I learned, I’ve never failed it two years in a row.)

So did you “fail” the NaNo because you couldn’t complete the usual goal of fifty thousand words in thirty days? In one sense, yes, I suppose, because, well, you didn’t reach the goal. But in many of the most important senses—no you did not. You have grown as a write, even if just a little bit. If you are really serious about “some day” writing that story of yours, you have realized that you had better carefully sit down and plan that “some day” so it becomes “today.” And most of all, you can consider your experience of this month to be a serious start on your research for next year. It’s never too early!🙂

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